Saturday, October 13, 2007

Words have lives of their own

by Terrie Lynn Bittner

There is a section in my first book that was done somewhat tongue-in-cheek. The book’s target audience got it, and often said it was both funny and true. A reviewer, however, took it seriously and was offended by it. Because I hadn’t labeled it tongue-in-cheek, as I had a section on stupid questions, and because I have a quirky sense of humor that often escapes people, there were those who didn’t get it, and therefore missed the unspoken message of the segment.

In a conversation, you have an opportunity to solicit feedback and make on-the-spot clarifications. When we write, or when we speak in a formal setting, we often don’t. Our words stand alone. It doesn’t matter what we said, only what people think we said. Recent debates over a General Conference talk last week make this issue very clear. People heard the exact same talk, and some were excited and motivated, while others were hurt or angry. They heard the talk in context of their own personalities, lives, and beliefs. The speaker had a motive, a purpose, and a message, but couldn’t control what people took from the talk.

As writers, this is a good lesson for us. There are many ways to say most things. There is no way to be certain every reader will hear our information or message the way we meant it. Words take on their own lives when they reach the reader and we can’t control it. We can try to anticipate it, however. As we make a lifetime study of words, we can try to learn not just the dictionary meaning of the words, but the emotional meanings of the words as well. For some, junk food is a lovely phrase, filled with thoughts of treats and happy indulgence. For others, the same term is filled with evil thoughts of people who don’t care about health. When we choose to use the phrase, we have to anticipate our target audience and how they react to the concept of junk food.

Make a list of ten words and then try to imagine how a variety of people might view those words. If you’re writing a novel, hand the words to each of your characters and ask them to explain the words to you. As you become more aware of how words, concepts, and ideas affect various people, you can increase your ability to communicate completely with your readers. We’ll never become perfect, but we can improve.

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